A group of northern Ontario aboriginal communities is hoping actor Leonardo DiCaprio will play a starring role in its fight against a De Beers diamond mine which it says could threaten the province’s boreal forest.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation has written to the movie star, asking him to promote their concerns about the gem magnate’s mine while he plugs his movie “Blood Diamond” – a film about the conflict diamond trade in war-torn Sierra Leone.
The letter to DiCaprio says the mine currently under construction on the western coast of James Bay could threaten Ontario’s boreal forest and aboriginal ancestral lands. The planned open-pit mine is “no alternative to African blood diamonds,” the letter states.
“Adding your voice – that can reach so many – to expose these diamonds that are threatening to destroy the way of life of Indigenous communities in some of the last remaining undisturbed areas of wilderness would be a beautiful gift of inspiration and solidarity,” the letter states.
“Ecological destruction and cultural devastation are not a good way to say I love you.”
Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said the Nishnawbe Aski Nation wanted DiCaprio to raise awareness that diamonds extracted from northern Ontario are similar to so-called “blood diamonds” from Africa because they also come at an ecological and social cost.
“The diamonds that will be mined here are not clean diamonds,” said Fiddler, who represents 49 northern aboriginal communities. “They are not conflict-free diamonds. There are people who live in those territories, which happen to be us and we do have rights.”
“We just don’t want a big hole in the ground when the jobs and the diamonds are gone. We have to be mindful of our responsibility to the future generation.”
DiCaprio has not yet responded to the letter but the community hasn’t given up hope, Fiddler said. A representative for DiCaprio did not respond to a request for comment.
Linda Dorrington, spokesperson for De Beers, said the letter sent to DiCaprio is full of hyperbole, incorrect information and is an “unfortunate” way of getting attention.
The $1 billion diamond mine currently under construction has undergone three years of “extremely thorough” environmental assessment and extensive consultation with aboriginal communities, Dorrington said. The mine is being built on swampland, and doesn’t threaten the boreal forest, she added.
“Everything was looked at from top to bottom and inside out,” Dorrington said. “Those environmental assessments have been considered by many people to be one of the most extensive and thorough environmental assessments ever conducted for a mining project in Canada.”
The project also has the support of the Attawapiskat First Nation, a local aboriginal community that’s part of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Some 86 per cent of participating Attawapiskat members voted to support the agreement with De Beers, she added.
Ground was broken on the diamond mine in the summer amid high hopes it would boost economic development in the region. More than 300 aboriginals are employed building the mine, as well as nearby roads and power lines.
The company is also pumping millions into neighbouring aboriginal communities that are plagued with substandard housing, high unemployment and suicide rates.
“This process has been so good . . . that the movie ‘Blood Diamond’ will have minimal effect on Ontario’s first diamond mine,” said Rick Bartolucci, minister of northern development.
“There’s nothing wrong with trying to engage the guy who’s starring in the movie, but I think there is a very good-news story here.”
New Democrat Gilles Bisson, who represents the riding of Timmins-James Bay, said aboriginals deserve to be an equal partner in any development on their land. The government should pass legislation that gives aboriginals an equal place at the table and a fair cut of the revenue, he said.
“First Nations need justice,” and harnessing the star power of DiCaprio might be the way to get it, Bisson said.
“Having high-profile names delivering the message doesn’t hurt. People tend to listen to those people for whatever reason.”